In a ground-breaking decision, on 31 July 2020, the Irish Supreme Court upheld the historic legal challenge initiated by Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) against the Irish Government, known as Climate Case Ireland. The Supreme Court held that the Government’s National Mitigation Plan, a main plank of its climate change policy, failed to specify how it plans for Ireland to transition to “a low carbon climate resilient and environmental sustainable economy by the end of 2050”, as required by the Climate Act 2015. The Supreme Court found that the Plan was “excessively vague and aspirational” and that “too much is left for further study or investigation”. The Government must now create a new, more ambitious National Mitigation Plan that complies with Ireland’s national and international climate obligations.
Climate Case Ireland is the first case of its kind in Ireland and only the second case in the world in which the highest national court of law has required a government to revise its national climate policy in light of its legal obligations. FIE launched the case in late 2017, alleging that the statutory Plan does not do enough to reduce Ireland’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is a violation of Ireland’s Climate Act, the Irish Constitution and the Government’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (Articles 2 and 8), especially as Ireland’s emissions were set to increase by 2020. In late 2019, the High Court dismissed the case, after a hearing on the merits, on the basis that the Government had broad discretion regarding the content of the Plan. FIE successfully applied to appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which heard the case in June 2020.
Ireland’s Climate Minister Eamon Ryan has welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling, stating that, “[w]e must use this judgment to raise ambition, to empower action and to ensure that our shared future delivers a better quality of life for all”. The Supreme Court’s judgment is available here. News coverage and analysis of the case is available here, here, here and here. More information on the case can be found here, on the Climate Case Ireland website and @climatecaseire
In 2014, 11 concerned Belgian citizens united to challenge the inadequate climate policies of the Belgian Government, as well as several regional governments. On 1 June 2015, the association Klimaatzaak (Climate Case) filed their statement of claim with the court. Since the start of the case more than 60,000 Belgians have joined in the call for more ambitious climate policies and added their names as co-plaintiffs. The claimants seek an order that the governments reduce the country’s GHG emissions by at least 42% by 2025 and by at least 55% by 2030, against 1990 levels, to avoid dangerous climate change.
The case initially got held up in court over a language dispute that was decided by the Belgian Court of Cassation in early 2018. In 2019, the claimants and the Governments filed their submissions with the Court. The Governments filed their final responses in March 2020, and the case will be ultimately heard from 16 to 26 March 2021. More information on the case is available here, here and @Klimaatzaak.
There are several cases on foot in Canada.
In November 2018, a Quebec-based environmental non-profit, ENvironnement JEUnesse, initiated the first stage of a class action lawsuit against the Canadian Government on behalf of all the citizens of Quebec under the age of 35. They argue that the Government’s GHG reduction targets are inadequate, and that failing to take aggressive action to avoid catastrophic climate change violates the fundamental rights of young people under Canadian and Quebec human rights charters. The application in French and English can be found here and here. In July 2019, the Superior Court of Quebec dismissed the application to commence a class action. In August 2019, the plaintiffs filed an appeal before the Quebec Court of Appeal and submitted an additional brief in November 2019. More information about the case can be found here, here and @ENJEUquebec.
In October 2019, a group of 15 young people, represented by a coalition of NGOs, filed a claim against the Canadian Government regarding its inadequate climate change policies on behalf of all children and young people in Canada and future generations. The claim alleges that the Government’s inadequate policies have allowed dangerous levels of climate change to occur which has, and will, seriously impact the claimants’ health, their livelihoods and their cultural practices as First Nations People. They allege that the Government is violating its obligations under the constitutional Charter of Fundamental Rights and the public trust doctrine. In February 2020, the Government filed its first statement of defence, requesting the claim to be dismissed. Hearings will take place in September and October 2020. Further details of the case may be found here, here and @DavidSuzukiFDN.
In November 2019, seven young people supported by Ecojustice filed a lawsuit against the provincial Government of Ontario, addressing its failure to adequately meet the challenge of tackling dangerous climate change. The applicants argue that the provincial government, by lowering the ambitions of Ontario’s climate targets through the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act in 2018, violated Ontarians’ Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person and equal protection under the law. They seek an order directing the Government of Ontario to set stricter science-based GHG reductiont targets. A virtual hearing arguing whether the case should be dismissed, was held on July 12, 2020. Additional resources and legal documents on the #GenClimateAction are available here, here and @ecojustice_ca.
In 2018, 25 young people from ages 7-25 brought a lawsuit against the Colombian Government, several local governments, and a number of corporations. The young people claimed that climate change along with the Government’s failure to reduce deforestation and meet its 2020 zero-net Amazon deforestation target threatened their fundamental rights to a healthy environment, life, health, food, and water. In April 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the young people, and recognised the Colombian Amazon as having its own rights, and ordered the Government to make and carry out action plans to address deforestation in the Amazon. The Supreme Court’s decision (in Spanish) can be found here. In August 2019, the District Court of Bogota scheduled a number of hearings to monitor the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision. Details on the hearings and the implementation of the judgment can be found here (in Spanish). More information about the case can be found here, here and @Dejusticia.
In May 2018, ten families, including children, filed a climate change case in the EU General Court against the EU Parliament and Council. The families, from Portugal, Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Kenya, Fiji, and the Swedish Sami Youth Association Sáminuorra, claim that the EU’s 2030 climate target is insufficient to prevent dangerous climate change or protect their fundamental rights to life, health, occupation and property. The applicants argued that the EU target of a 40% reduction in domestic GHG emissions below 1990 levels by 2030 is unlawful and that a greater level of ambition is required. The European Parliament and the Council have argued that the case is inadmissible. In May 2019, the European General Court dismissed the case because it did not meet the test for admissibility that has historically restricted the access of citizens to the EU courts. The claimants have filed an appeal with the European Court of Justice and its decision is pending. The application can be found here. Information about the first instance decision can be found here, and the appeal can be found here. More information on the case can be found here, here and @CANEurope.
In December 2018, four non-profit organisations – Fondation pour la Nature et l’Homme, Greenpeace France, Notre Affaire à Tous, and Oxfam France – began the process of filing a climate change claim against the French Government, by sending a letter of formal notice. The claim is supported by over 2 million people who have signed a petition in support. The lawsuit challenges the Government’s inaction on both climate change mitigation and adaptation. On mitigation, it alleges that the Government has failed to take the “necessary measures” to hold global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees in violation of its obligations under France’s Constitution (the Environmental Charter) and the European Convention on Human Rights to protect the rights to life and to family life (Articles 2 and 8), among others. The claim emphasises that France’s emissions have increased since 2016 and that climate change has had, and will have, significant impacts on the health and mortality rate of French people.
In February 2019, the Government filed its first reply contesting the case. In March 2019, the claimants formally filed the case in the Administrative Court of Paris and filed additional pleadings in May 2019. In June 2020, the Government filed a further reply in which it denied the claims and asked the judge to dismiss the case. In September 2020, the claimants filed their last reply, challenging the State’s arguments. Hearings are expected to be scheduled in Autumn 2020. The letter of formal notice, additional pleadings and other legal documents can be found here and here. Supporters of the case can sign a petition on the L’Affaire du Siecle website. More information about the case can be found here, here, @laffairedusiecl and @NotreAffaire.
In February 2020, nine young people between the ages of 15 and 32, supported by Greenpeace Germany and Germanwatch, filed a constitutional complaint with the German Federal Constitutional Court, challenging Germany’s newly adopted Climate Protection Act. The plaintiffs argue that the Act’s target of a 55% GHG reduction by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) is inadequate and violates their constitutionally protected human rights. They call on the Constitutional Court to declare that the legislature is required to issue new GHG reduction quotas aimed at further cutting Germany’s emissions. Additional resources and legal documents can be found here, here and @greenpeace_de, @Germanwatch.
This case follows an earlier lawsuit initiated in October 2018 by Greenpeace Germany, with three German families who are organic farmers, against the German Government. The plaintiffs claimed that the Government’s failure to meet its emissions reduction target of 40% by 2020 violates the plaintiffs’ rights to life and health, property, and occupational freedom under Germany’s Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. They asked the court to declare that the Government is legally obligated to comply with its 2020 target.
In October 2019, the Berlin Administrative Court dismissed the case on the basis that the 2020 target had been substituted by the Government’s decision to adopt a new Climate Protection Act which lowered the 2020 target, in effect postponing the target until 2023. The court did, however, find that fundamental rights can be violated by the impacts of global warming and that the Government’s climate policy must be based on scientific facts and the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). On the facts of the case, however, the court could not find violations of fundamental rights. The plaintiffs decided not to appeal, but see the judgment as an important step in the recognition that governments have legal duties to take climate action. General information about the case can be found here and here. Statements of the plaintiffs on the judgment of the Berlin Administrative Court can be found here and here. Coverage of the case can be found here (in German) and @greenpeace_de.
In March 2017, nine-year-old Ridhima Pandey filed a petition against the Indian Government in the National Green Tribunal. Pandey asserted that the Government had failed to fulfil its duties to her and the Indian people to mitigate climate change, as it falls short of meeting the emission reduction policies and standards that it has set for itself. In her petition, Pandey asked the Tribunal to order the Indian Government to prepare a carbon budget and national climate recovery plan in accordance with international agreements and scientific consensus. The petition was rejected by the National Green Tribunal on the basis that the matter was already covered under the environmental impact assessment. The petition filed by Ridhima is available here. Further details about the case are available here and @ridhimapandey7.
In September 2020, 15 youth plaintiffs between the age of 17 and 23 filed a lawsuit against the Mexican Government, challenging its inaction on climate change. They ask the Government to issue regulations and public policies to properly implement the General Law on Climate Change which, according to the complaint, has not been implemented since its adoption in 2012. The plaintiffs contend that the Government has an obligation to mitigate Mexico’s contribution to global climate change and guarantee the constitutional right to a healthy environment. In September 2020, the case was admitted, thus allowing it to proceed to a hearing on the merits before a District Court. The case is supported by Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste and Our Children’s Trust. Other legal documents can be found here and here.
Photo courtesy of Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste
In November 2015, law student Sarah Thomson took the New Zealand Government to court for its insufficient climate ambitions. The case was heard in court in June 2017. On 2 November 2017, the High Court in Wellington issued its ruling. The Court held that climate change presents significant global risks and that the Government is legally accountable for its actions to address climate change. The Court determined that the New Zealand Minister for Climate Change had acted unlawfully by failing to consider whether to review the country’s climate change targets for 2050 after the publication of most recent IPCC Assessment Report. The Court refrained from issuing an order against the Government, as the newly elected Government took up office in October 2017 and committed itself to a target of CO2-neutrality in 2050. More information on the case is available here and here. The statement of claim and the judgement of the court are available here and here.
Asghar Leghari, a Pakistani farmer, brought a climate change case against the Pakistani Government for failing to implement its national climate change law and policy. In 2015, the Green Bench of the Lahore High Court upheld the claim, on the basis of the Government’s obligations to protect the constitutional rights to life and to dignity. Finding that the Government had done little to carry out its national climate law, the court directed government ministries to each nominate a focal point to ensure implementation and present a list of action points. The court also created a Climate Change Commission, mandated to monitor the Government’s progress. The court decision can be found here. More information on the case can be found here.
In December 2019, seven young people filed a complaint against the Peruvian Government regarding its failure to adequately tackle climate change. The claim addresses, in particular, the impact of mass-scale deforestation on the enjoyment of their fundamental rights, including the rights to a healthy environment, to life, water and health, as recognized by the Peruvian Constitution and in international human rights law. The claimants seek an order directing the Government to implement a net zero deforestation plan in the Peruvian Amazon by 2025, including mitigation and adaptation measures as well as the recognition of the Amazon as a rights-bearing legal subject. Legal documents and additional resources can be found here, here (Spanish) and @Ideele.
Photo credits: Instituto de Defensa Legal
In March 2020, 19 young people filed a lawsuit against the Government of the Republic of Korea, claiming that it has failed to protect their constitutional rights by taking the short-term action needed to prevent dangerous levels of climate change. The plaintiffs are members of the Korean Youth Climate Action Group which has led the ‘School Strike for Climate’ movement in Korea. The plaintiffs are supported by Solutions for Our Climate and S&L Partners, acting as co-counsel on the claim. In the claim filed before the Constitutional Court in Seoul, the plaintiffs challenge the Government’s current 2030 GHG emission reduction target, which is set in law, and its previous decision to abolish its 2020 GHG emission reduction target. The plaintiffs allege that the Government’s actions violate the Constitution because they fail to provide sufficient protection for their fundamental rights from the harms caused by climate change. The plaintiffs rely upon their constitutional rights to life, to health, to a healthy environment and their rights to equality and non-discrimination as children, drawing on the principle of intergenerational justice. More information about the claim is available here and on the official website of the ‘Youth Climate Lawsuit’ (in Korean) here. Press coverage of the launch of the lawsuit is available here (in English), and here and here (in Korean) and @youth4climatekr.
In May 2017, a group of senior Swiss women (the Klimaseniorinnen, Senior Women for Climate Protection) filed a legal complaint against the Swiss Government (the Federal Council) and three responsible authorities in the Federal Administrative Court. The plaintiffs asserted that the Government’s climate policies are unlawful and violate their rights to life and to private and family life under the European Convention on Human Rights, and their constitutional rights, because they fail to limit warming to the politically agreed ‘safe level’. The plaintiffs demanded an immediate increase in the ambition of the country’s mitigation targets for 2020 and 2030. In November 2018, the Federal Administrative Court dismissed the case, ruling that the plaintiffs are not particularly affected by the Government’s climate change mitigation measures beyond the impact on the general public. In January 2019, the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court, which dismissed the case in May 2020, finding that the violation of human rights cannot be claimed until the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal is exceeded. The Supreme Court’s judgment and other legal resources can be found here. More information about the case can be found here, here and @KlimaSeniorin.
In December 2017, climate charity Plan B and 11 members of the public, aged 9 to 79, filed a climate change case against the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The claimants argued that the UK’s 2050 climate target (of 80% reduction against 1990 levels), set in 2008, was not in line with the Paris Agreement nor with new scientific evidence. They argued that the Secretary of State is required to increase the target. In July 2018, the High Court decided not to hold a full hearing of the case, finding that Plan B’s arguments had no prospect of success. Plan B and the 11 members of the public appealed to the Court of Appeal, which rejected the appeal in January 2019, for the reasons given the High Court. The order of the Court of Appeal can be found here. More information can be found here, here and @PlanB_earth.
In 2015, 21 young people filed a lawsuit against the United States Government in the District Court of Oregon, supported by Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit organisation. In the case, also known as Youth v. Trump, the plaintiffs claim that, for decades, the Government has actively contributed to causing climate change and that in doing so it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources. In November 2016, the plaintiffs survived an attempt by the Government and the fossil fuel industry to have the case thrown out of court at an early stage. In a landmark opinion and order, the Federal District Court of Oregon held that “the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” and rejected the Government’s motions to dismiss the case. Since then, the Trump Administration has made several applications to stay the trial, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court have repeatedly denied. In January 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the Government’s latest appeal and dismissed the case, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing since the relief they sought was beyond judicial power. In March 2020, the plaintiffs filed a petition for rehearing before the entire bench of the Court of Appeals, alleging significant errors of law in the previous judgment. The petition remains to be determined. Legal documents and more information on the case can be found here, here, and @youthvgov.
There are a number of other climate litigation cases pending against governments at the state level in the United States. For additional information, see Our Children’s Trust’s website.
In March 2015, the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations were launched, formulated by an international group of eminent jurists, including High Court judges, law professors and advocates from countries such as Brazil, China, India, the US and the Netherlands. The Oslo Principles hold that regardless of the existence of international agreements, governments already have a legal obligation to avert the harmful effects of climate change, based on existing international human rights law, environmental law and tort law. The Oslo group endorses the arguments that Urgenda brings forward in its climate case and also provides support to initiatives in other countries to involve the courts in their efforts to contain climate change.
In 2015, the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw published an extensive interview with Jaap Spier, Advocate-General to the Dutch Supreme Court, concerning the Oslo Principles and the Urgenda climate case. According to Spier, ‘Courts can force countries to adopt effective climate policies. Court cases are perhaps the only way to break through the political apathy about climate change.’
From the article: Does a judge need to be an activist in order to make a statement about climate change? “No”, says Spier, “it is just a matter of applying existing law, although undoubtedly not all judges will be open to this. Judges with the courage to give a ruling on this will one day be applauded, whereas those who don’t will eventually be tarred and feathered.”